This week is the Third Sunday of Easter, and our readings highlight the primacy of Peter among the Apostles, and the primacy of love in following Jesus.
Just a few comments on the preliminary readings before we concentrate on the Gospel.
During the seven weeks of the Easter Season, the Lectionary reads semi-continuously through Acts in the First Reading (showing the birth of the Church on earth) and through Revelation in the Second (showing the final state of the Church in heaven).
In the First Reading this week (Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41) we see Peter’s primacy (“Peter and the apostles said in reply …”) in leading the early Church through the experience of persecution, and in boldly proclaiming the Gospel despite sustained and serious cultural opposition. Let’s pray for Pope Francis to do the same.
In the Second Reading, (Rev 5:11-14 ), John, whom tradition has identified as the same as the author of this Sunday’s Gospel, sees the entire creation in worship of the Lamb: “every creature in heaven and on earth, and under the earth and in the sea”—all cry out “To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor …”
It’s amazing that John should have such a universal vision of the glory of the Church, at a time (perhaps the AD 60’s) when Christianity was still very small and persecuted.
Even today, despite large numbers on the books, the Church still feels like a little flock, persecuted by civil authorities as in Acts 5, and also by a smug-and-snarky international media establishment, yet we take courage in the firm hope that all creation will acknowledge Jesus as Lord on the last day.
The Gospel is Jn 21:1-19 :
At that time, Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias.
He revealed himself in this way.
Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus,
Nathanael from Cana in Galilee,
Zebedee’s sons, and two others of his disciples.
Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.”
They said to him, “We also will come with you.”
So they went out and got into the boat,
but that night they caught nothing.
When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore;
but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?”
They answered him, “No.”
So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat
and you will find something.”
So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in
because of the number of fish.
So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.”
When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord,
he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad,
and jumped into the sea.
The other disciples came in the boat,
for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards,
dragging the net with the fish.
When they climbed out on shore,
they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread.
Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you just caught.”
So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore
full of one hundred fifty-three large fish.
Even though there were so many, the net was not torn.
Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.”
And none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?”
because they realized it was the Lord.
Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them,
and in like manner the fish.
This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples
after being raised from the dead.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
He then said to Simon Peter a second time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
Jesus said to him the third time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time,
“Do you love me?” and he said to him,
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger,
you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted;
but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands,
and someone else will dress you
and lead you where you do not want to go.”
He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.
And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”
Some scholars insist that John 21 is an addition to the Gospel by a different author that chapters 1-20, but this has to be regarded as improbable and unsupported. The language, structures, and thought on John 21 are very similar to the rest of the Gospel and there are a large number of intertextual links that bind John 21 with the entire book.
Two other Gospel passages have to be kept in mind to properly understand John 21. The first is Luke 5:1-11, where Jesus first calls the disciples. After preaching from Peter’s boat, Jesus tells Peter to “put out into the deep” (duc in altum) for a big catch, even though they had toiled all night and caught nothing. Peter and the sons of Zebedee pull in an amazing catch of fish, Peter begs the Lord to depart because he is a “sinful man”, and Jesus calls the disciples to follow him and become fishers of men. There are several obvious parallels with this Sunday’s Gospel. John the Evangelist presupposes that the reader knows the story of Luke 5, in order to grasp that here, in John 21, after the resurrection, Jesus is renewing his call to the Apostles to “follow him” and calling them back to their original vocation and mission. This is one of several instances where John presupposes that his readers have some familiarity with the life of Jesus from the other Gospels or possibly oral tradition.
The other Gospel passage to be kept in mind is John 18:15-18,25-27, the account of the threefold denial of Jesus by Peter. When Peter denied Jesus, he was warming himself over a “charcoal fire” (John 18:18). Jesus makes a “charcoal fire” to cook breakfast in this Sunday’s Gospel (John 21:9). These are the only two references to a charcoal fire in the Gospel of John, indeed in all of Scripture. It’s not accidental—Peter is being reminded of the night of his betrayal, and Jesus will allow him a chance to ritually “renounce his renunciation” three times.
This Gospel account highlights the primacy of Peter among the Apostles. The character of Peter, in fact, dominates most of John 21, the conclusion of this greatest of the Gospels, even though the Gospel was clearly written by a different apostle (John 21:20-24). Peter is listed first among the disciples named as present. The other disciples follow his lead by accompanying him fishing. When Jesus shows his presence on the shore, Peter is the first one to go ashore, followed by the others. The others don’t seem to be able to get the fish ashore. But then, the way John describes it, it sounds like Peter goes single-handedly back on board the boat and drags the net of 153 fish in by himself. After the breakfast, Peter alone is granted a private audience with the risen Lord. Obviously the author of this Gospel has a high regard for Peter and his role among the Apostles and within the Church.
But this Gospel is not only about the primacy of Peter. It is also about the primacy of love. During the “audience” between Jesus and Peter (vv. 15-19), Peter’s ritual re-confirmation as chief shepherd all revolves around his love for the Lord.
First, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” The question is ambiguous. Who are the “these”? Does Jesus mean:
(1) “Do you love me more than [you love] these [other men]?” I.e. Do you love me above all other persons in your life?
(2) “Do you love me more than these [fish]?” I.e. Do you love me more than you profession, your way of life, your livelihood, your “comfort zone”?
(3) “Do you love me more than these [other men do]?” I.e. Do you have greater love for me than others do? Do you excel in love, so as to be suitable to excel also in authority?
Ambiguity abounds in the Gospel of John, and I think it is intentional. All three meanings may well be meant. Jesus is eliciting from Peter a comprehensive love to correspond to the comprehensive role of shepherding that he will bestow.
Three times Jesus asks about Peter’s love; three times he affirms it. Two different words for “love” are used in the Greek. The first two times, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you agape me?” Agape is the word for divine love. Peter always answers, “I phileo you.” Phileo is the Greek word for fraternal love. The last time, Jesus adopts Peter’s term and asks, “Do you phileo me?”
This gives the impression that Jesus asks twice, Do you love me with divine love? And Peter responds twice, “I love you with brotherly love.” And at last Jesus condescends to Peter’s capabilities, “Do you love me with brotherly love?”, thus implying that such love will suffice: Jesus will accept what Peter, no longer brash and now painfully cognizant of his human weakness, knows he can offer.
This interpretation is suggestive, but must be entertained with caution, because both phileo and agapao are used elsewhere in John for both divine and human love.
The idea that Jesus is condescending to Peter’s human weakness is, nonetheless, clear from the passage as a whole. Otherwise, Jesus would have rejected Peter on account of his threefold denial at the Lord’s time of need.
The primary requirement that Jesus asks of Peter is love. In return for this love, Jesus commissions Peter to “Feed my lambs—tend my sheep—feed my sheep.” The threefold repetition of this commission, together with the variations in which the shepherding charge is phrased, point to the comprehensive nature of the shepherding role being given to Peter. While all the apostles have a role as shepherd over part of the flock, Peter is commissioned as shepherd of the whole flock. As Protestant Bible scholar Andreas Kostenberger puts it: “[Peter], who has renounced all earthly ties and who has declared supreme loyalty to Jesus … is commissioned to serve as shepherd of Jesus’ flock as the Great Shepherd takes his leave.” It’s remarkable that more and more Protestant biblicists are willing to acknowledge that this and other passages of the Gospels imply that Peter was given a kind of general pastoral responsibility over the whole early Church (see for example Markus Bockmeuhl, Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory: The New Testament Apostle in the Early Church [Baker Academic, 2012], especially the last few pages of the last chapter.)
Peter’s love will lead to the cross. “When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands” –this is a reference to stretching one’s arms on the patibulum, the perpendicular bar of a Roman cross.
Love and authority go together in the Church. Love gives credibility to authority. St. Ignatius of Antioch gives one of the earliest testimonies to the primacy of the authority of the Church of Rome, Peter’s See, in his Letter to the Romans, when he famously refers to Rome “presiding in love” over the other churches. Indeed, whoever would preside in authority should first preside in love. Pope Francis quoted St. Ignatius’ words about “presiding in love” on the very night he was first presented on the balcony of St. Peter’s as “bishop of Rome,” the one who presides over the church that is to preside in love.
This Sunday’s Gospel lays out the role of Peter and all his successors: they must renounce all others and excel in love of Jesus in order to lead the whole Church.
At the same time, the Lord’s words are applied to us: Do we love him “more than these”? Do we love him more than we love other persons, than we love our profession and lifestyle? Do we in any way distinguish ourselves from other people by our love for Christ? That’s what it means to follow Jesus, and everyone, from the Pope to the most unknown believer, has to respond to Jesus’ summons: “Follow me!”